How to organize your email

No matter your industry or the size of your company, email is undoubtedly a constant presence in your professional life. Whether you thrive on email-based communication or you’d prefer to ignore email notifications, however, it’s easy to let your inbox get out of hand. Getting your inbox in order might sound like a daunting task, but a few simple methods can help you streamline online communication. Learn how to organize email and get your inbox under control for good.

Though many startups and small businesses use instant messaging and chat apps to communicate with colleagues, you’ll still need email to talk with vendors, pitch to investors, and follow up with customers. Sending an email is often more convenient than making a phone call, and it creates a virtual paper trail that serves as a handy reference.

Despite its importance, however, email can be an unending struggle for entry-level employees, executives, and startup founders alike. A study by McKinsey Global Institute found that for the average employee, reading and responding to emails is the second most time-consuming task on a typical workday. That means you could spend hours a day communicating with people before you even have a chance to work through your to-do list.

If you’re one of the lucky people who receives hundreds or even thousands of emails on an average day, it’s time to act. Take a moment to think about how effective your email organization strategy is and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you constantly have dozens or hundreds of unread emails lurking in your inbox?
  • Do you regularly neglect to respond to work-related emails within 24 hours?
  • Do you frequently rush through reading emails and miss critical information?
  • Have you ever lost an email or failed to acknowledge an important message?
  • Do all of your messages end up lingering in one large, disorganized folder?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s time for an inbox overhaul.

Email organization

Devising a strategy to organize your email can be a substantial challenge, especially if you don’t know where to start. Fortunately, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. To organize inboxes, email experts recommend adopting a few key strategies. Take a look at some of the most effective methods and find one that works for you.

Dedicate time for tackling email

Before you start the email organization process, it’s important to establish a workflow that helps you streamline your day. If you already spend a good chunk of the day on email, this step is especially important. After all, you might be able to save several hours each week.

To get that time back, you have to dedicate time to reading email and schedule time for responding. If you don’t already track how much time you spend on tasks throughout the day, try to estimate how much time you need for email. Then break that time into 30- or 60-minute blocks spaced throughout the day. Doing this will help ensure that you don’t miss anything urgent without allowing you to spend the entire day communicating.

You also have to prevent yourself from immediately reacting to every email notification you receive or checking your inbox constantly. Instead of keeping your email program open and active, simply keep it closed and only open it during scheduled times.

If you have a tendency to check email constantly when you have a few spare minutes between tasks or when you first arrive at your shared office space, you may need to retrain yourself to stay focused and avoid distractions. For instance, if you do your best work during the first few hours of the day, refrain from checking email when you first power up in the morning. Instead, schedule an hour of email activity mid-morning or right before lunch.

If you typically address yesterday’s late-breaking developments in the morning, consider setting aside 30 minutes for email in the evening instead. You might need some time to get accustomed to this schedule, but you’ll appreciate the drastic improvement to your productivity.

Get as close to “inbox zero” as possible

Some industries live by the inbox zero principle, which encourages you to end each day with an empty email inbox and keep it that way throughout much of the day. Inbox zero might be an attractive goal, but don’t stress if it isn’t a possibility for you. Instead, set specific goals to pare down your inbox as much as you can.

For instance, even those marketing messages and spam emails take time to process, even if you’re just scanning subject lines quickly before deleting the messages permanently. If you receive hundreds each day, take a few minutes to assess the subscription lists you belong to and decide how relevant they are. Unsubscribe from lists manually or use a free tool like to save time. With a cleaner inbox, you’ll have an easier time zeroing in on what’s important.

Then, during your scheduled email time, try to respond to messages as quickly and concisely as possible. While some emails deserve a longer response or more time to consider, you can tackle much of your inbox immediately. Answer the easy questions right away and use saved form responses to address the issues that come up constantly. By following the one-click rule — only opening and reading emails once — you can save a lot of time over the course of the week.

Use email folders and labels

Emails make for great references, especially if you need to remind yourself which stage a project is on or what time that event starts. If you’re constantly searching for emails, though, you probably aren’t using time effectively.

Experts on inbox organization recommend a couple of helpful strategies for creating folders and using labels. Try the five-folder method, which breaks your email into time-based groups and helps you prioritize tasks:

  • Inbox: Never let emails sit here. File them into one of the following four folders right away.
  • Today: Move all emails that need immediate action into this folder and address them by the end of the day.
  • This week: Make a goal of emptying this folder by the end of the day each Friday.
  • This month: Emails that can wait till later in the month or quarter can go here. Make sure you check this folder on a periodic basis, and don’t let these messages slip through the cracks.
  • FYI: Not every email has a deadline attached to it, but that doesn’t mean you just want to delete it. Instead, put it in the FYI folder, where you can easily reference it later.

The five-folder method can be a lifesaver if you struggle to prioritize your inbox. If you need more folders to keep things organized, try creating folders or using color-coded labels for each client or every major project. Make a point of not taking this type of organization too far, though. If you find that you’re applying more than one or two labels to each email, you could be wasting more time than you’re saving.

Remember that you may not have to apply every label or folder manually. Gmail and other email clients may allow you to apply labels automatically. Explore your email client’s filtering options to place emails from certain senders or with particular subject lines in certain folders automatically to save even more time while staying organized.

Create reminders

When you tend to keep a packed schedule, it’s easy to forget to respond to emails, especially if you’ve filed them away. To make sure you don’t forget anything critical, create a reminder system that makes it easy to follow up.

Since adding emails to your to-do list can take time, try using a free tool like FollowUpThen. Once you create an account, this handy service allows you to add an email-based reminder at the time you specify. You can even remind clients automatically too, which ensures that everyone stays on track.

You can also use a multipurpose service like IFTTT, which is short for If This Then That. Set up the appropriate action and reaction, and you could train your inbox to send a daily reminder to handle emails you’ve starred or turn certain messages into tasks in your project management system. With so many automation possibilities, you can easily take the guesswork out of email organization.

Stop allowing email to take over your workday and get a handle on your inbox. Use these email organization strategies to save time, lower your stress levels, and make each day more effective.

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